Clearing the Water on Rape

The following piece was also published on PDXX Collective

A lot of people have wondered over the last eight months, and especially the last few weeks, how teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio, could witness someone being raped and not do anything about it. But we know why. Of course we do. They watched as she was raped because we haven’t taught them otherwise. Not as parents. Not as friends. Not as a society. We’ve let the waters remain muddy, and some of us have muddied the water ourselves.

Over the last year, I’ve come to know three survivors of rape and their stories intimately. Some, I featured here. In each case, the perpetrator did not seem to know he’d committed rape. One tossed a friendly wave at his victim from across campus the day after the incident; another texted his victim a detailed apology–ie., confession of a felony, indicating he probably didn’t know he’d committed a felony. (Despite said confession—“I was too drunk to realize you were saying ‘No’”—the man was not brought to trial due to lack of evidence.)

There’s a fantastically sarcastic piece on Gawker by Mallory Ortberg in which she writes of the Steubenville football players: “Your ability to perform calculus or play football is generally not taken into consideration in a court of law. Should you prefer to be known as ‘Good student and excellent football player Trent Mays’ rather than ‘Convicted sex offender Trent Mays,’ try stressing the studying and tackling and giving the sex crimes a miss altogether.”

It’s tempting to write these guys off as assholes. Many men do not rape; if those men learned how to avoid becoming sex offenders, then surely Mays, Richmond, and the thousands of other rapists could have as well.

But consider, again, the bystanders. Add them to the whole mess and we have a crisis of definition, not only of rape but of consent as well. The waters are so muddy, we can’t see halfway to the bottom.

Candy Crowley and others got a lot of grief about their compassionate coverage on CNN of the conviction of the two Steubenville boys, lamenting the ruination of the young lives. But what I found most striking were these words of Crowley’s: “two young men…found guilty, in juvenile court, of rape, essentially.

Well, no. Just plain “rape” will do. It wasn’t “sort-of rape” or “the essence of rape.” It was rape.

Because, as we all should know, rape is the penetration of anyone, anywhere on their body, by anything. So, the fingers of Mays and Richmond into the vagina of the victim count, Candy.

Gosh, if an esteemed CNN journalist didn’t know, I think it might be safe to assume that the two boys who raped the girl might not have known, either. This does not excuse them. It just adds ignorance to their hubris, to their willingness to violate and humiliate a fellow human being, no matter the legal definition.

One bystander, when asked why he didn’t stop the rape, said, “It wasn’t violent.” Another boy who videotaped the assault said afterward he did it because he was, “Being stupid. Not making the right choices. I don’t really have a reason.”

Had he, and the others, been watching the stereotypical stranger-with-a-knife raping the girl, he probably would not have whipped out his video camera. Someone probably would have called police.

It’s got to be hard to rationalize that the same boy you sit next to in Algebra 101 is the same one raping a girl right in front of you. It would be less hard if we made it clear that about 84% of women who are raped know their assailant.* It would be less hard if we had no such distinction as “acquaintance rape.” If we have any distinction at all, it should be “stranger rape.”

Crowley’s addition of a cupful of mud to the water, on national television, regarding the definition of rape is almost imperceptible (all the more dangerous, I say). More overt are the bucketfuls of mud dumped by May’s and Richmond’s defense attorneys. Their two-tiered attack on the definitions of rape and consent are scattered among our various newspapers and on television, stating that the victim never actually said the word, “No” and “There’s probably a lot of indiscretion on her part as well.”  An intelligent and compassionate lawyer I know told me that though this defense is reprehensible, the lawyers were just “doing their job.”

I wonder where that argument ends and responsibility begins. I mean, if young people see those defenses being said out loud by adults, written in newspapers, and stated in court, aren’t they going to see them as legitimate arguments instead of what they are—dangerous and irrelevant arguments? Because, it doesn’t matter if she did not say no. Lack of consent does not mean saying, “No.” It means NOT SAYING YES. Being unconscious or asleep is a lack of consent. Being too drunk is a lack of consent. And, as long as we’re clearing the water, being too drunk does not mean, “Shit, I made a poor decision. You may rape me.”

Those defense lawyers know all this, but instead, to do their job, they decided to turn the victim into a whore at worst, someone who wanted it when she was sober anyway at best. They decided to play on the age-old misperceptions of what rape and consent are. Misperceptions that contributed to all those teenagers watching a rape and doing nothing but laugh and record it.

Boy spray paintingLet’s make sure boys and girls, and men and women, know what consent means, that “No means no” doesn’t cover it. That consent is indicated by saying, “Yes.”

Let’s make sure they know that rape is the penetration of anyone, anywhere on his/her body, by anything, without affirmative consent.

Women are often warned, as if the responsibility rests solely on their shoulders, that if they drink too much, bad things might happen to them. Let’s warn the men, too. As in, “If you drink too much, you might think it’s okay to stick your penis or finger or marker inside the girl passed out next to you. You might even think it’s funny. But guess what? If you do that, it’s a felony.”

As a blogger, I can check my site statistics. These include all the various search terms people enter in a given day that end up leading them to my blog. One of the most recurring search terms I find is, “Was I raped.”

Let’s clear the water and make sure they—and their rapists and any bystanders—never have to wonder again.

* Source: “Rape in America: A Report to the Nation.”

15 thoughts on “Clearing the Water on Rape

  1. Enthusiastic consent. We’ve been discussing this on a Hub Pages forum back and forth the last couple of days, the question of taking responsibility for one’s actions has come up repeatedly. I think that explaining to every man, woman and child (at an age appropriate level, of course,) what enthusiastic consent means and how to express it could clarify the question of rape. No one should *ever* have to ask if they were raped. Irregardless of that young woman’s intoxication, (and there are some rumors that she was drugged while in a car on the way to the *first* party,) it should not even be considered whether or not she was raped, she was brutally assaulted, even if there weren’t any bruises. Paraphrasing from one of the commenters I’ve found more vexing:

    “Wrong on so many counts.

    I’m truly sorry that you don’t care to acknowledge that “violence oriented” rape (in quotations, yet) as different than other forms. I’ll try to explain in simple words.

    Using the term, as done in the quotes, should tell you that there is more than the absolute definition. In this context, then, it refers to an action whose primary purpose is violence. Whose goal is pain, whether physical or mental. The sexual act performed is only a pathway to produce that pain, nothing more, and is often not even physically possible for the perpetrator who may use artificial tools rather than a biological one.

    A “non-violence oriented” rape, then, would refer to the opposite. One where the sexual act is the intended goal, with any violence or pain being unintended. Artificial tools will never be used as it does not produce the goal. In this sense your comment that rape is not sex is silly, unless you want to define what happened to that girl as not being rape. Date rape, or the use of drugs, would probably fall into this category as long as no physical harm is intended.”

    My God, that last line… if you get a chance, check out the thread, I’ve been banging my head against a wall trying to explain:


    Just because those boys didn’t shred her body within an inch of her life doesn’t mean that they didn’t hurt her in ways that she may never recover from.

    The thread is on Hub Pages and is called: Rape- It’s Her Fault

    Original poster started it as a commentary on how as a society we’re frequently blaming the victim for being raped and how terribly detrimental this is.

    The same poster who posted that gem above and another commented about how women have the responsibility to protect themselves from rape by not putting themselves into dangerous situations.

    Honestly… well, yes, that’s true. No one should make a bad decision which results in putting themselves in the way of harm, okay, yeah, but comparing a drunk, helpless victim of a brutal attack to someone walking down the streets of Chicago with $50 bills hanging out of their pockets getting mugged? I just don’t even know how to argue with how skewed of a comparison that is.

    • I wouldn’t know how to convince them, either. All you can do is say your piece and then walk away. I’m not even sure I have the heart to check out that thread…I’ll have to start some breathing exercises first.

  2. Well said! Apparently they have no perspective of the victim’s life being irrevocably changed. I’d prefer rapists be branded on their foreheads for life, or even better, following Hamurabi’s code (punishment fitting the crime), perhaps castrating rapists would get the message across. (“Oh, did you say ‘No, I don’t want to be castrated?’ You looked like you wanted it.”) It’s the denial of responsibility that angers me, as if they have a right to defile whoever they want, for whatever whim they choose to follow.

    • Yes – the lack of responsibility. I know he’s only 16 and clearly, clearly, immature, but Mays’ apology in court–something about being sorry for taking a video–was ridiculous.
      “You looked like you wanted it.”–love it.

  3. Pingback: Brazilian support for raped pregnant girl | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Great post. As much as I feel these things, I cannot do them justice with words. Thank you for getting the message out there so people searching can find answers.

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